Anglo Saxon Literature
The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien or better known as JRR Tolkien. The story is a sequel to an earlier fantasy novel he penned called The Hobbit (1937).
The Lord of the Rings spawned into a large body of work as a trilogy. It was written between 1937 and 1949, during World War II.
Influences of The Lord of the Rings
According to National Geographics, The Lord of the Rings is influenced by.
JRR witnessed the horrors of World War I. His experiences became the basis the following: 1. World Wars I and II, 2. industrial revolution and lastly, 3. JRR’s training in language for the battles in The Lord of the Rings. The story was also written for the most part during World War II. Hence, its notable influence on the war theme.
The industrialization changed the face of England. Urbanization has increased migrants and industries in JRR’s place. Tolkien’s concern on the effects of industrial revolution to the environment found its way in the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
And finally, the point of contention delineated in this paper is the Anglo-Saxon influence in the Lord of the Rings which is brought about by Tolkien’s linguistic training.
Tolkien's Linguistic Training
J.R.R. Tolkien devoted much of his life to the pursuit of knowledge, particularly the study of ancient and Anglo-Saxon’s language. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.
Tolkien's pursues further study in philology, which is about the relationships and ancestry of languages. Tolkien was as a philologist all throughout his professional life. He published articles on Anglo-Saxon texts, such as Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Anglo-Saxon is obviously is specialty. At the time he wrote “The Lord of the Rings” he was obsessed with studying myths.
Anglo-Saxon Influence on The Lord of the Rings
JRR was a student and an admirer of the Anglo-Saxon literature and customs. His expertise on the subject is also unquestionable. Therefore, it is not surprising that the The Lord of The Rings just like his other writings, echoes these sentiments.
The Kingdom of Rohan in Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" presents an unusual culture. The war-torn place with Norse-like structure seems to etch an image of constant change in Tolkien’s native place in Britain.
The influence and parallelisms between Norse adventurers ‘Beowulf’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ as portrayed by the narrator “Westron” are unmistakable. Tolkien’s fondness for the Norse-like creatures based in Beowulf leaves an indelible mark in his story.
Beowulf is believed to be written between 7th and 10 century. Some observers believe that the Kingdom of Rohan is based on the Norse, Viking or even Celtic culture. But since Tolkien intended Middle-earth and West-lands to be representative of modern England then most probably Rohan comes to represent England in the Anglo-Saxon period.
As a philologist, understandably, Tolkien’s background on historical development of languages serves him well in this epic trilogy. His studies on ‘Beowulf’ is very prominent in the pages of the book. Beowulf, for the most part, serves as the main influence for the 'The Lord of the Rings.' The Anglo-Saxon influence of the 'The Lord of the Rings' therefore can be gleaned from its associations with Beowulf.
To understand 'The Lord of the Rings' one must first seek to understand “Beowulf” since the two are closely intertwined. Beowulf portrays the Norse culture using Anglo-Saxon viewpoint as exhibited by the languages and cultures in the poem. Tolkien’s account of Rohan serves a clear reminder of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds.
He incorporated Beowulf into his own mythology, giving the Anglo-Saxon character a new lease on life in his trilogy. All throughout the novel, the content and style of writing demonstrates too plainly the Anglo-Saxon influence. Thanks in part to Tolkien’s able story-telling capabilities, Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon customs get highlighted in the book and became an accepted part of the modern culture.
Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings exhibit so many similarities. Beowulf’s halls Heorot, King Hrothgar's hall, reminds one of Meduseld, Théoden's hall. When Beowulf and companions arrived at the Danish island, a coastguard met them and said:
What kind of armour-owners are you, protected by mailshirts, who have thus come
leading the high ship over the sea-road, here over the seas? Listen! For a long time I
have been a coast-guard, kept watch by the sea, so that in the land of the Danes no
enemy might do harm with a ship-army. Never have any shield-bearers begun to come
here more openly .... Speed is best to tell where you have come from (237-255)
In a strikingly similar passage, when Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli and Gandalf arrive in Edoras, they too are first challenged by a guard:
Who are you that come heedless over the plain thus strangely clad, riding horses like to our own horses? Long have we kept guard here, and we have watched you from afar. Never have we seen other riders so strange, nor any horse more proud than is one of these that bear you. ... Speak now and be swift! (Book III, Chapter VI)
In both Beowulf and in The Lord of the Rings, the visitors are led to the hall and requested to give up their arms. The accounts are almost quoted verbatim.
The need to use one’s wisdom is exhorted in both books. In Beowulf one can see the guard indecisive as to whether to let the visitors. He finally let them in upon deciding that he can rely on Beowulf’s words.
In the same vein, when Gandalf insists to take his staff into the hall, Háma has to decide in an instant and relies on conventional wisdom to come up with said decision, "Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom" (Book III, Chapter VI).
The parallelisms between the two are evident all throughout the tales. When Beowulf talks to the Danes and attempts to convince them that he can help them defeat Grendel, one of Hrothgar’s advisers who stop him bears a close resemblance to Wormtongue.
Both Unferth (Beowulf) and Wormtongue’s (Lord of the Rings) characters are driven by great envy. Unferth "at the king's feet...sick with envy: he could not brook or abide the fact that anyone else alive under heaven might enjoy greater regard than he did" (500-504). The same way that Wormtongue, seething with rage and envy, is seen sitting at the feet of his master, Theodon. The resemblance of the two antagonists is almost uncanny.
The characters of both Balrog in The Lord of the Rings and Grendel in Beowulf are also similar in that both are introduced as shadowy figures. In the same way, Balrog is only described as an incomprehensible shadow with ‘fiery eyes’.
Beowulf, however is not the only Anglo-Saxon influence found in The Lord of the Rings. Certain influences can alsso be found in other Old English and Anglo-Saxon literatures. Take for instance, the four members of the fellowhip, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn when they arrived in Edoras, Aragorn chants in the language of the Rohirrim.
“Where now the horse and rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
........... They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? (Book III, Ch VI)”
Aragorn's chant depicts deep grieving which is normally the theme of Anglo-Saxon chants. The chant employs a caesura or half-lines in the middle of each line, similar to Old English prosody. Caesura means that each line of the poem is made up of two parts and one has to make a slight pause in between them. This style of writing is reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon’s use of distichs and caesura. The Rohirrim chant is believed to be inspired by the Old English poem, The Wanderer.
The Wanderer’s influence on the Rohirrim chant reveals Tolkien's fondness and knowledge of Old English poetry and prose. The chant has both beauty and musicality which invites the reader to sing out loud. These melodic and mournful words uttered by Aragorn could only come from someone who has in-depth knowledge of the complex art of Old English poems filled with elegiac laments.
Another work that could have influenced the story is “The Battle of Maldon”, an Old English poem about the conflict that arose in Maldon. This poem is considered as one of the best battle poems of Old England. It clearly outlines the three ideals represented by the people in Anglo-Saxon England. There is continuous mention of these three: loyalty, vengeance and fighting for the king.
Even the title of The Lord of the Rings has its Beowulf origins. The line 2345 reads, "Oferhogaode ða hringa fengel," in English this means "Yet the prince of the rings was too proud..." This pertains to Beowulf's fondness of sharing gold rings and other loots from war with his men. Tolkien probably used this title of Beowulf's to mean "Lord of the Rings."
Beowulf’s marked influence is found all throughout the book such as in the speech of Treebeard, the leader of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, uses the classic Old English verse form. The writing style uses alliteration in each line. Usually, each line has four stresses with divided into two and divided by a caesura. Beowulf is based largely on this structure. Treebeard uses this form of poetry in his speech.
Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons
Rohirrim is patterned after the Anglo-Saxons. The semblance is prominent in its songs and story. The chapter “The King of the Golden Hall” comes from Beowulf.
The Rohirrim are strong believers of fate. One can this belief right at the beginning when Gandalf sees the burial mounds of kings. The Rohirrim, more than anyone else, also represent the heroic bravery of Anglo Saxon. This trait is particularly more pronounced in the characters of Théoden, Éomer, and Eorl as they remain true to their cause even if defeat stares them at the face.
"Purpose shall be the firmer, heart the keener, courage shall be the more, as our might lessens. Here lies our lord all hewn down, good man on ground. Ever may he lament who now thinks to turn from war-play. I am old of life; from here I will not turn, but by my lord's side, by the man I loved, I intend to lie." ("The Battle of Maldon")
Fatalism is one trait both the Rohirrims and the Anglo-Saxons share. They expect death and to attain glory in death is more desired than to die peacefully. This is evident in Eowyn’s statement. "Éowyn stepped to the king.
"Alas, Théoden, son of Thengel," she said. "But you have turned the tide. See, they fly. The enemy is broken by fear. Never did an old Lord of Men die better. You shall sleep well, and no Shadow nor foul thing assail your bed.""
And in Beowulf:
"And if death does take me, sent the hammered mail of my armour to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!" (Beowulf)
The Anglo-Saxons pursue fame because fame equates being immortal. This is the overriding goal in their lives, so much so that they would rather die or kill to receive glory.
Anglo-Saxon Origin of the Names of the Characters
Beowulf uses Old English meter but the characters bear Scandinavian names. It may have Vikings roots but it is basically an English story. The same way with the Lord of the Rings. Rohan is the biggest land in the “Lord of the Rings”. Rohans resemblance to Old England is striking.
As Rohan is threatened by invaders such as the Saruman's forces, the Dunlendings, Easterlings, and the Mordor, England is similarly subject to invasion from the Celts, the Vikings, the Saxon and Germanic tribes of mainland Europe, or even the Romans. These invasions re-shaped England’s politics and culture particularly its language.
If the Middle-earth is England then Rohan should have been filled with Danish-speaking warriors but not so. Instead, it is made up of people using the Anglo-Saxon languages of England.
In 'Appendix F: The Languages of Men', Tolkien explains this dilemma. He says that between the places Gladden and Carrock were people called Gondor as the Rohirrim, Masters of Horses. They speak their ancestral tongue, and gave new names in it such as calling themselves Eorlings, or the Men of the Riddermark. The lords of that people, however, used Common Speech the same way it is being spoken by their allies in Gondor (1103).
This ancestral tongue mentioned by Tolkien is the reason for the Rohan’s various names such as the names of people and places. Almost all of these names are derived from Old English which of course goes to show the influence of Beowulf to the Middle Earth.
The Vikings may have adapted to a different culture but the language remains the same. The characteristics of the invaders from Scandinavia however do not manifest in the Rohirrim since the people are not so enterprising. Rohan is more concerned with defending its territory from invasion instead of doing barter. This fact goes to show that Rohan’s culture is not derived from Norse or Viking culture. The Anglo-Saxon influence of Rohan is largely because of its Beowulf parallelisms and Tolkien’s English background.
The list of influences of the Anglo-Saxon period contained in The Lord of the Rings goes on and on, in a seemingly endless procession. From the Old Norse characters and storyline, the experiences and difficulties faced by the characters, to the names and languages used- all of these manifest Tolkien’s affiliation to the Anglo-Saxon period.
Studying these elements would allow one a better and deeper understanding of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkiens’ genius lies in being able to use old mythology and marry it with contemporary reading. Tolkien opened up a new world for the modern man to understand the old magical world inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. One of Tolkien’s greatest contribution is to make the older mythology an accepted part of the mainstream through the magic wrought by The Lord of the Rings.